How To Be Different, Not Better
‘Better’ will always be a losing game for your brand.
Of all the quotes in all of my articles, there is one passage with significantly more highlights, tweets and shares than anything else I’ve written:
This quote is from my piece The 16 Rules of Brand Strategy and it’s one I return to over and over again in my work, even when we work with the most enlightened of client teams.
The “better” trap is real.
It’s hard for brands to resist wanting to be better than the competitor in their brand messaging, and the trap hides in the most unexpected of places.
Faster, cheaper, easier, more responsive, superior service, voted #1, top rated, guaranteed… these are all just other ways of saying “better”, as are these other common refrains we’re all guilty of using:
- Designed, specially created, reimagined
- High quality, high standard, owner operated
- Flexible, adaptive, evolving
- Seamless, no friction, less than 5 minutes
- Choice, selection, more options
- Free, no-risk, no-commitment
- Customized, personalized, tailored, unique
- Original, oldest, authentic
- Small batch, handmade, crafted
- Increased, higher, lesser
- Transparent, trustworthy, safe
- Dependable, strong, sturdy
- Best (which is just ‘better’ in a suit)
More perks. More freedom. More control. More anything.
No matter how you employ these phrases (or ones like them) they are all just features and benefits.
And under every feature and benefit lies a ‘better’ trap.
To get out of that trap, you need to change your frame of reference. A brand is not features or benefits.
Your brand is a specific point of view. It is an opinion. A vision of the future. A way forward. A before and after.
Your brand is a belief. Belief is the new benefit.
This is where to really look. This is where a ‘different’ (not ‘better’) strategy starts to take shape.
Although features and benefits definitely have an important place in your messaging, they are not the defining factors of your brand. In many cases, they’re not even the pillars you build your brand on top of.
To be different is to expand your frame of reference, and that’s a paradigm shift very much worth exploring.
What It Means To Shift Your Paradigm
Even if your product and business model are better (or the best), a brand narrative resting on those two factors won’t be rewarded in the long run.
As long as you’re ‘better than X’, your identity is tied to that other entity. You’re always in some version of a mud slinging fight, even if you never mention the other’s name. You’re simply defining yourself against the very thing you’re trying to separate from.
A lot of superior product and service companies still lose to brands that dare to be different in their perspectives.
As a Casper owner, I can tell you they are not winning because of their mattress product. They are winning because of their sleep belief. As a Rent The Runway subscriber, I certainly wouldn’t give them any awards for customer service, but I enthusiastically give them my heart and dollars every month because I read the CEO’s open letter on the closetless future.
Yes, your product has to deliver on the promise. But a strong brand with a point of view can keep your customers around while you iron out the details.
A great brand based on a belief can make your users experience the future, even if the today of it all is a little messy.
When you understand branding like this, it feels like seeing the matrix. You’ll immediately see which players in your space get it and which don’t.
That’s the paradigm shift you’re looking for.
A shifted perspective allows you to uncouple from all of the rules that put your competitor in the spotlight.
You may think your users care about ‘better’, but that’s only because you haven’t given them anything bigger.
Ask yourself — Can I make people care about something different than they care about now?
There are different ways to answer that question, and it’s important to find the right one for your company.
4 Ways To Own “Different”
We’ve worked with many companies around the world, all with different needs and visions.
What’s come of that work is an understanding of triggers in the post-boomer consumer market that shift a company from being branded to being brand-led. (More on the branded/ brand-led concept here.)
Being different isn’t easy. It doesn’t pay off right away. It takes resources and time. It takes the fortitude to not default into old models the minute something stalls.
But if you’re serious about building a brand with tremendous equity behind it, these are some good places to start looking.
1. Create a new category everyone else is blind to.
Sometimes in order to not play in everyone else’s backyard, you literally need to create a new backyard altogether.
We’ve seen this already start to happen in a few spaces, including beauty. There was a time when brands like Lancome, L’Oreal and Estée Lauder owned the skincare and makeup space, and the story there was always very clear: beauty is applied. Beauty is something that is created on the surface.
Both literally and figuratively, they defined the concept of beauty as something on the outside.
That definition of the category lasted for decades (and even centuries if you look at the brands that came before them).
And then, someone dared to take a deeper look at consumer trends and create the emergent space everyone else was blind to: wellness.
WelleCo, Supergoop, Juice Beauty, Ritual, Sunday Riley, and even fitness influencers like Kayla Itsines understood that wellness flips the script and defines itself as something that comes from the inside via health, fitness, mind-body-spirit balance, and finally… beauty.
The new story, like most new narratives, goes even deeper into a new belief than the old story could have ever gone:
“Beauty, once thought to be a category that focused on skincare, is becoming integrated into the umbrella term of wellness,” explains Buchanan [strategic researcher at Future Laboratory].
“This is growing out of a dire need for an alternative to the reactive model of skincare. Everything from skincare to gut health is focused on being proactive and preventative, rather than just being reactive.”
A new space means a whole new set of standards, parameters, rules and ways to sideline your competitors.
It’s why an archaic beauty standard like ‘porcelain skin’ has been replaced by a new consumer obsession with ‘glow’.
Porcelain skin is on the surface. Glow comes from within.
It makes sense, then, that companies like Lancome, L’Oreal and Estée Lauder — brands that once owned the discourse around beauty — are suddenly excluded from the cultural conversation.
When considering your own brand, look for adjacent spaces where you can create crossovers, or use crossovers as a jumping off point to develop a new world entirely.
Consumers are increasingly finding value in the connection between spaces.
2. Move from utility to lifestyle.
Let’s, as a group, just forget about aspirational marketing.
I strongly believe aspirational brands are chasing fool’s gold, and there’s no better place to see this than in luxury. As I wrote about in my 2016 article How New Luxury Is Undermining The Old Guard, aspirational branding creates a distance that only resonated with a previous generation’s value system:
Aspiration is separating.
It creates rigid rules that may have worked in a hierarchical world, but if you’re reading this, you already know the hierarchy (whether in business, gender, government or class) is quickly losing authority and crumbling away.
What we are left with is a personal authority that comes from within, not without. Authority has become a part of our lifestyles.
And that’s what lifestyle brands are all about.
The answer to an aspirational model is lifestyle branding.
CEOs and founders often ask me what it means to be a lifestyle brand and the answer is simple: Lifestyle brands insert themselves into the important life moments of their users. Specifically, those life moments that echo the brand’s guiding beliefs.
Yeti is a premium cooler and drinkware brand that may look simple enough on the surface, but smartly invests in it’s lifestyle positioning.
You’ll notice Yeti’s brand doesn’t lead with solving a problem or JTBD, although the product itself is very much a utility that solves a specific need.
Instead, they have taken aim at a much bigger perspective and inserted themselves into the life moments of their customers.
Not just any life moments, of course. Specifically life moments that reflect their belief in the freedom of the human soul in nature.
Looking at their Stories page, you’ll find a multitude of individual fisher, hunter and adventurer stories in well produced videos and content that place Yeti in exactly such life moments for regular people.
That’s a pretty provocative story, and at $350 for a 13 gallon cooler, a pretty provocative price point for what is essentially a basic utility product.
And yet still, the brand is a cult favorite with perhaps one of the least assuming groups — construction workers.
Construction workers, who we may assume care about value for dollar and are immune to marketing speak, actually pay a huge premium for a product that doesn’t even perform that much better than cheaper competitors (!)
That’s the power of lifestyle branding.
You don’t need to be better. You need to be different.
3. Change the focus.
In many industries, the vast majority of brands fail to understand a very basic tenet of brand strategy.
Instead of revealing yourself to the customer, reveal the customer to themselves.
Branded companies will talk about their accolades and how they think differently, but frame it in terms of expressing who they are.
Brand-led companies, on the other hand, show how they think differently by expressing who the customer is.
In a space like that, you can be the single voice that shows the user how your brand belief will change them. While other companies talk about themselves, you should be talking about the customer.
Consider these side by side brand messages of citizenM and Airbnb:
citizenM says look at who we are.
Airbnb says I see who you are.
They are remarkably different, and Airbnb’s message inspires a markedly different belief about what travel really is. While citizenM struggles with HomeAway, Hilton and local boutique hotels on metrics of ‘better’, Airbnb is having a totally separate conversation based on ‘different’.
Some industries already get this. Sports and fitness, food and certain consumer tech verticals have made great strides in changing the focus.
But other spaces like finance, medicine, automotive, enterprise software, as well as virtually all nonprofits we’ve researched in our work, don’t seem to get it at all.
That’s your opportunity.
4. Change the reality.
People think their reality is one way right now, but you can change that.
Smart companies reframe what people take for granted, so that consumers adopt a new reality that benefits the brand.
After all, one of our favorite stories as a society is, “omg, we’ve been doing wrong this whole time!”
Gut health, natural baby care, cleansing diets and inflammation, modern dating, flat organizations, solo travel — these were all versions of “omg we’ve been doing it wrong”, and as they emerged in the collective consciousness, there was always a brand that helped verbalize the story and bring it to light.
Viome is in an increasingly crowded space of home testing kits focusing on the microbiome and gut bacteria.
uBiome, Thryve and Wellnicity all have similar products, but none of them tell the story that Viome is telling.
While others use their brand positioning to link gut health to wellness (image above) and tell the story “there’s a connection here,” Viome takes a different track:
For Viome, the story is “Everything we knew about food and diets was wrong. This is how to do it right.”
In other words, omg! We’ve been doing it wrong this whole time.
Viome reframed the same product in a very different story, and puts every competitor outside of their target consumer’s consideration set.
If you can see the matrix, you can make the customer see it, too.
The Other Half Of The Equation
Being different, not better, isn’t a one time deal.
It’s a decision you have to make for your company every single day, in every action you take, long after your brand strategy is concepted.
More than anything, it’s a perspective that sits at the core of your company.
I believe the wildly successful brands who’ve won with a ‘different not better’ strategy didn’t do it by strategy alone.
They had CEOs and leaders that committed to the strategy for the long haul, never letting it falter in the face of short-term losses, get watered down as the company grew, or fall by the wayside when initial targets were met.
They were vigilant about keeping the belief alive.
That’s the other half of the equation. If you’re going to take this route, my advice is to trust the path wherever it leads you.